Scarlett Evans (SE): Tell me about your organisation. What is your mission, and what role does gender equality play in it?

Elena Bou (EB): As the innovation engine for sustainable energy across Europe, EIT InnoEnergy supports and invests in innovation at every stage of the journey – from classroom to end-customer. Our ultimate goal is to contribute to the Energy Transition through innovation to achieve a more sustainable world.

Some time ago, we ran a study with our female founders. We learnt that a lack of role models prevents women from thinking about the energy industry or entrepreneurship as a professional option. Since then, we have tried to foster the ‘visualisation’ of these cases. This does not mean that they did not exist before, but they were ‘hidden’. Another way we tackle gender equality is through our approach to events. As an example, at this year’s The Business Booster (TBB), most of our keynote speakers are female.

SE: What kinds of benefits can the industry see from gender diversity?

EB: Gender equality is vital to sustainable development, and is particularly important for the energy industry for three main reasons.

First, recent studies have shown that gender-balanced teams have better performance.

Secondly, if you’re in the energy industry then you are in an ‘innovation’ industry. Creativity is the seed of innovation, and in order to foster creativity, we need diversity.

Finally, it is a market issue. The transition from fossil fuels to a renewable, decentralised grid is creating a plethora of new challenges for us to contend with. These challenges won’t necessarily be fixed purely by technology. We need to think about the solutions from an end user perspective and take a more human-centric view. Women are now a target customer in sectors like energy efficiency, smart buildings or mobility. They need to be studied as a customer and a consumer. This is something new and as a consequence, new skills and talent are needed in energy companies.

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We need to create diverse groups not only when it comes to gender but also in regards to knowledge and backgrounds. We need competencies brought by sociologists, anthropologists, social scientists etc. These are the professions where the number of female professionals typically surpasses males – there is an opportunity to strengthen teams not only by improving gender diversity but also knowledge diversity.

SE: What challenges are still faced by women in the sector?

EB: Broadly speaking, women continue to face the same challenges in the energy sector as in many others. Notably, the opportunity for women to assume senior leadership roles, and be rewarded equally in comparison to their male counterparts remains a challenge.

Equally, as a male dominated industry there is a continual need to change the perception of what a woman can do. We’re seeing women taking up roles across the supply chain from wind farm technicians and data analysts to electrical engineers and project planners. But there’s still a long way to go to change the “face” of the industry to a more inclusive one.

One interesting finding is that not only do we need to change the perception of what a woman can do, but also how their performance is perceived. A scientific study ran in the US by Professor Richard Boyatzis proved that despite the actual performance of male and female executives being similar, perception differed. That is: male executives’ performance was perceived better than that of females. Being aware of this bias is relevant when we are analysing the performance of our teams.

SE: What more can be done? How can organisations be adapting to support women in this field?

EB: It is likely that we will always need to encourage women into the field. We already see a number of initiatives across the sector to support women in the industry to reach leadership roles, such as mentoring. But a large part of the challenge is to get school-aged children interested in STEM subjects in the first place and then providing the resources needed to turn this interest into industrial skills. Here, schools undoubtedly have a role to play, but support from industry for resources, experiences, careers advice and pathways also make a big difference. That’s why we offer energy education in lots of different formats to make it as accessible as possible to the broadest range of people.

The other course of action is to recognise that we have a problem – if we are not aware of it, we cannot change it. We do not know why some biases exist, but they are there, so let’s act accordingly. This is especially important in recruitment processes, performance evaluation and creation of teams.

A positive attitude can make all the difference, and diverse and complementary teams are better, so let’s work to achieve them.

SE: How has the lack of women’s involvement in decision-making in this field proven detrimental?

EB: Innovation benefits greatly from diversity, but not only innovation. Diversity make organisations more flexible, more open to hear different music, different discourses and that flexibility increases the learning capacity of a company.

That the energy sector has been quite homogenous is a fact. They have been living in the same status-quo for ages. Now they are facing a completely different environment, new roles, new actors, new supply chains…and this is a challenge because traditionally they were not ready to face changing environments.  Would this situation have been different if there were more women in the teams? We do not know to what extent, but for sure their adaptation capacity would be higher. They would have been better equipped.

SE: Do you think things are beginning to shift?

EB: There are several indicators that something is happening. In the US, the most prominent VCs make sure that teams are balanced. This is something that is scrutinised in the due diligence and if they are not, they ask why – the assumption is that there should be a gender-balanced team. In Europe the percentage of female founders is 15%. A low number, but it is even lower in the sustainable energy field: only 9% of founders are female.

In InnoEnergy’s portfolio this number has been increasing during the years. Today, 14% are female founders. Women entrepreneurs are found in fields across the board, including smart buildings, energy efficiency, storage, renewable energy and energy for chemical fuels.

Although there is still a lot to be done, this may be an opportunity for the sector to become more flexible, more creative, more innovative and to have more talented teams. All this will make us better prepared for the future changes and the energy transition.